The Six of Calais & Ruth at Susie Sainsbury Theatre Review

The Six of Calais & Ruth at Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Pegasus Opera’s double bill of Ruth and The Six of Calais is rather like the company’s mythical namesake: it takes two very different, and seemingly incongruous, things and melds them together into a strange but wonderful creature.

Alison Buchanan, Chike Michael and Angela Caesar. Photo credit Sisi Burn.
Alison Buchanan, Chike Michael and Angela Caesar. Photo credit Sisi Burn.

The two-part production opens with The Six of Calais, with libretto and music by Philip Hagemann based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1934 one-act satirical play. Performed in the perfectly appointed (but smaller scale) Royal Academy of Music theatre, director Cassiopeia Berkley-Agyepong and her creative team need to be nimble in their staging choices to build a world for a droll early 20th-century semi-political/semi-domestic comedy of manners that can rapidly transform, after the interval (and without Royal Opera House apparatus or budgets) into Ruth: a biblical tale that is both epic and intimate.

It is in the first production’s visual elements where this multi-faceted performance stumbles slightly. Finding a unifying aesthetic that can hold the operatic rendition of Shaw’s light-hearted but politically sharp short play – that was itself inspired by his great friend Auguste Rodin’s famous larger-than-life-scale bronze of pain, anguish and fatalism (as opposed to traditional historic heroism) depicting a scene taking place some half-a-millennium earlier – is no easy task. Designer Jida Akil seems to have had some interesting ideas about stylised costumes – perhaps looking to satirise the royals with (literally) inflated proportions whilst showing the burghers as thread-bare without locating them in a specific era. The effect, however, felt as if perhaps the ambitions couldn’t be fully realised within the budget or schedule and it might have been a more effective choice to have stuck with a more literal depiction of the burghers, ragged and beleaguered, weighing them down with heavy rope instead of binding them with flimsy cord. Rather than embracing a grand, sculptural feel in both dress and presence – an obvious gift from Rodin – the visual notes of drama and Shavian whimsy struggle to harmonise. There are moments in the performance during which the cast seem somewhat underconfident in their movements; slightly confused by the work’s multiple layers rather than buoyed by its richness. Regardless, The Six of Calais more than delivers musically. Conducting both productions, Avishka Edirisinghe’s orchestra is exquisite. Tenors Dominick Felix (Peter Hardmouth) and Sandeep Gurrapadi (Burgher 4) distinguish themselves amongst a fine cast of voices. Bernadine Pritchett (Queen Philippa) is pivotal to The Six of Calais, both vocally and dramatically.

Whereas the first production trots and flutters pleasingly, regardless of some mildly approximate aspects, Ruth canters and soars majestically. Three women, Ruth (Alison Buchanan), Naomi (Angela Caesar) and Orpah (Moloko Letsoalo) arrive upstage as an imposing and magnetic presence against a sunset-washed wall. Here we see light and texture serving the story and delighting us as Akil’s set and costumes and Chuma Emembolu’s lighting find one another to create an impressive and impressionistic whole that is also simply beautiful. Timed with masterful precision, Berkeley-Agyepong’s direction together with Yojiro Ichikawa’s movement are transporting.

It is soprano Alison Buchanan in the titular role, however, who turns the piece from good to transcendent. Both Buchanan’s voice and presence elevate not just the audience’s experience but the entire cast’s performances. Managing to feel both grand and intimate, as well as holy and human, at the same time, Ruth is a production in which everything is offered and nothing is wasted. Chike Michael (Boaz) brings his rich bass-baritone to the musicality as well as his expressive presence to the opera’s theatricality.

Through Ruth, the Pegasus Opera Company, helmed by artistic director Alison Buchanan, shows us its skill in cultivating and curating talent to execute art without any caveats or compromise. Musically resplendent, Ruth is sometimes produced as a concert piece. A rich and compelling musical work, the story itself (as rendered by Philip Hagemann’s composition) is perhaps not as intensely ‘operatic’ in its range of emotional extremes as the canon of famous crowd-pleasers. Nonetheless, there is something truly special at play when co-producers Hagermann Rosenthal Associates and Pegasus Opera Company come together on the London stage. Resplendent with commitment, quality and ambition, I am excited to see what Pegasus will do next.

4 Stars

The first opera in the double bill is The Six of Calais, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play, which premiered in 1934 and featured Greer Garson. Shaw was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Burghers of Calais which commemorates a moment during The Hundred Year’s War when King Edward III of England offered to spare the lives of the people of Calais if six of their leaders surrendered themselves to him. In a contemporised production setting, after the unrepentant Peter Hardmouth berates him for his warmongering, King Edward resolves to sentence them all to death. His wife, Queen Philippa intercedes and demands that the burghers be treated kindly to avoid a bad omen being placed on her unborn child. Much bickering and light hearted chaos ensues and an unexpected family connection is revealed which convinces King Edward to spare the men’s lives.

The second opera of the double bill is Ruth, which sees Naomi and her husband Elimelech flee famine in Judah to seek a new life in Moab. They lived happily for many years and their two sons married Moab women, Orpah and Ruth. After Naomi’s husband and sons die, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law that she must return to Judah to reclaim Elimelech’s property. Orpah decides to remain in Moab, but Ruth decides to leave the life she knows behind and go with Naomi. Back in Judah, Naomi encourages Ruth to meet Boaz, a prominent land owner. Ruth and Boaz soon fall in love. However, their future happiness is threatened when it is revealed that another landowner, Amnon, is first in line to claim Elimelech’s property. When Amnon learns that he can only own Elimelech’s land if he commits to sheltering Ruth and Naomi, he offers the property to Boaz instead. Boaz announces happily to the entire village that he will claim Elimelech’s land and Ruth will be his wife, with everyone welcoming Ruth to their community. Both exciting adaptations will be staged in a modern-day setting and look at themes of female power migration, loyalty and acceptance, as well as the rebirth of nature and human connections.

21st – 23rd April 2023